The Rot of Intolerance at Swarthmore
It's nice when they make things perfectly clear. You step on to a college campus and you are beset by people parading around telling you how much they love "diversity." Then you find out that when anyone who holds an opinion not perfectly in line the the contemporary gospel of race-gender-environmental sensitivity, they are shouted off campus. If they had been invited to speak at campus, they are disinvited, or if that wasn't possible their appearance is subjected to sophomoric protests. As I put it last month in The New Criterion, contemporary academia presents us with that oxymoronic phenomenon, Illiberal Liberalism.
Many well-meaning folks, I've observed, tend to discount the seriousness of this development. No matter how egregious the episode, they are ready with an extenuating excuse. It was an exception. It was not as bad as you made it seem. It was quickly remedied by a caring/sharing administration. Et very much cetera.
It will be difficult, I think, for such hear-no-evil types to argue away Peter Berkowitz's Open Letter to Swarthmore's Board of Managers. Berkowitz, himself an alumnus of Swarthmore, wrote to urge the tony but financially troubled institution to choose carefully in its search for a new president. Please, he asked, please pick someone who will uphold the traditional values of liberal education, values that centrally include tolerance for competing views of the world. Contemplating what actually happens at pampered institutions like Swarthmore, however, it is difficult to be sanguine. Berkowitz cites one episode that, in its crisp fatuousness, epitomizes so much that is wrong with higher education today.
Princeton Professors Robert George and Cornel West differ sharply in their philosophies. George is a conservative Catholic, West is some variety of Leftist firebrand. Despite their differences, however, they are friends and often appear together to debate. This is how it should be on college campuses, of course, since colleges are institutions that were formed to encourage free inquiry.
But that formation took place long ago. When the pair came to Swarthmore in February to debate "same-sex marriage," they were greeted by angry protests. Listen to Erin Ching, Class of 16: “What really bothered me," Ching was quoted in the Swarthmore student newspaper as saying, "is the whole idea that at a liberal arts college, we need to be hearing a diversity of opinion. I don’t think we should be tolerating [George’s] conservative views because that dominant culture embeds these deep inequalities in our society."
Think about that: "What really bothered me is the whole idea that at a liberal arts college we need to be hearing a diversity of opinion." Heaven forfend! How much better to treat liberal arts colleges as factories dedicated to enforcing ideological conformity on all contentious issues. It would be funny if it were not so pathetic.
There is a bright side to almost everything, however, and Ching's fatuous comment reminds us that the institution of higher education in this country is not only in trouble, its is disintegrating before our eyes. The commentator Glenn Reynolds has written often about the senescence of the institution of education, lower as well as higher. He is fond of quoting the economist Herb Stein: "What cannot go on forever, won't." The moronic self-centeredness exhibited by students like Erin Ching cannot go on forever. I doubt that they can survive more than a few seasons more. Therefore, it won't.